Politics & Government

Kansas Senate weighs bill to ease prosecution of teachers over offensive materials

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Clarification: A bill being considered by the Kansas Senate would make it easier to prosecute educators and others for exposing students to “material harmful to minors.” A previous version of this story. The Kansas Senate may consider a bill that would make it easier to prosecute teachers, librarians or school principals for exposing students to offensive materials.

Senate Bill 401, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, was drafted in response to a January incident at a Shawnee Mission middle school in which a poster used in sex education classes was put on a classroom door.

Supporters of the legislation say a clause in the current law protects materials that are part of “an approved course or program of instruction.” They say that lets schools ignore community standards for what might be considered “harmful to minors.”

Opponents of the bill – including education groups and the American Civil Liberties Union – say it amounts to broad-brush censorship and would make teachers, libraries or anyone with supervision of a public establishment culpable for even accidental exposure to material somehow deemed offensive. That potentially could include works such as Michelangelo’s statue of David or Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” opponents say.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she thinks the bill will return to the Judiciary Committee for some more work. It is unclear when, or if, the bill will get full hearing on the Senate floor.

Phillip Cosby is state director for the American Family Association of Kansas and Missouri. His group testified this week in support of the bill.

“It’s a chilling hurdle for any prosecutor or any grand jury or any person who wants to question educators in Kansas,” he said of the current state law.

“It almost translates to the word ‘license.’ It gives them a pass. And parents are stymied.”

Holly Weatherford, spokeswoman for the Kansas chapter of the ACLU, said Thursday at the Capitol that the bill is “facially unconstitutional.”

“The way this bill is currently written, it is so overly broad that it’s hard to even evaluate what all of the implications or consequences are of its reach,” she said.

Randy Mousley, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said the proposed legislation is “a solution in search of a non-existent problem.”

“It’s just an overreach where some particular group is trying to impose their values on everybody else in society,” he said. “There’s not that many instances (of teaching materials being challenged), but the unforeseen consequences are numerous.”

The bill was introduced by Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, who also sponsored a bill that would require parental consent for students to receive sex education in public schools. Both bills were prompted by the middle school poster, which was part of a sex ed program called “Making a Difference,” she said.

The poster was titled “How Do People Express Their Sexual Feelings?” and featured a list of 17 behaviors or sex acts, including cuddling, holding hands, massage, kissing, oral sex and anal sex. It was removed after a parent complained, and Shawnee Mission district officials later said in a letter to parents that the curriculum had been suspended “pending a detailed review of the material.”

“Because of the way the law is written, although everyone else has to follow community standards, schools do not,” Pilcher-Cook said Friday.

“Right now if a teacher were to give pornography (to a student) it is not likely at all that a prosecutor would take the case because there is such a high hurdle protecting our schools.”

Steve Maack, who teaches senior English in East High’s International Baccalaureate program, called that claim and the bill “absurd.”

“They’re essentially criminalizing the teaching profession. That’s what it comes down to,” Maack said. “It says, ‘You, as a professional, are not capable of choosing your own materials without the threat of criminal prosecution if you make the wrong step.’

“If something like this were to pass, I would leave the state. I can’t even imagine teaching under these circumstances,” he said. “I think it’s horrible, it’s insulting, and ultimately it’s bad for kids.”

Officials with the Kansas-National Education Association said in a blog post Wednesday that the proposed bill would “purge literature from our schools, censor art classes, and stop field trips” because teachers likely would self-censor to protect themselves from potential prosecution.

“A teacher who takes a field trip to the state capitol and suddenly notes the bare-breasted woman in the artwork in the rotunda can be accused of recklessly exposing students to nudity,” the group said.

Cosby, of the American Family Association, said such works still would be protected under a clause in the law that protects materials that a “reasonable person” would find to have “serious literary, scientific, educational, artistic or political value for minors.”

“They’re saying somehow this is equated with art, but no, no, no,” he said. “That is not the issue in front of us.”

Wagle, the Senate president, said the bill – particularly the change of one word – needs to be revisited by the Judiciary Committee.

“There was a lot of questions raised about a one-word change. ‘Knowingly’ was changed to ‘recklessly,’ ” Wagle said. “And I think we’re going to put that bill back in committee and look at that question.

“Sometimes you get a bill out and catch something that’s wrong. And we did that today.”

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